Christina Therese Gentile, MA, CWC, discusses the connection between nutrition, mental health, and emotional wellness.
By Christina Therese Gentile, MA, CWC
The information below is not intended nor suited to be a replacement or substitute for professional medical treatment or for professional medical advice relative to a specific medical question or condition. The information is not intended to establish a patient/provider relationship. Consult your doctor or nutritionist regarding specific individual health needs.
“Wellness” is an active and dynamic process of change and growth that contributes to optimal health. It involves more than the absence of disease and illness. Wellness is the integration of the body, mind, and spirit. A healthy diet is one of the essential ingredients to achieving wellness. Improvements or modifications in the gluten-free diet may positively influence physical, mental, and social health. This article will focus on the connection between nutrition, mental health, and emotional wellness.
A well-balanced diet can improve energy, alertness, concentration, attention, and cognition. However, a nutritionally inadequate diet may have the opposite effect, resulting in troubles such as fatigue, impairments with concentration and attention, and difficulty in decision-making. As discussed in “Celiac Disease and Mental Health,” the gluten-free diet may have an impact on emotions and mood due to deficiencies in key vitamins and minerals such as vitamins B (Young, 2007) and D (Hoang et al., 2011) , iron, and calcium (Young 2002; Young 2007; Taylor & Geddes, 2004). However, nutritional and dietary strategies can help combat these nutritional deficiencies andthe imbalances in mood that may have occurred as a result.
By choosing foods that provide good energy and nutritional value, you can help nourish your body and mind. The following dietary and nutritional strategies may impact and enhance mental health, mood and wellness.
In the body, damaging molecules called free radicals are produced as both a byproduct of normal body functions and a result of environmental exposures to tobacco smoke and radiation. Free radicals can damage cells and cause dysfunction within the body. A balanced diet containing antioxidants may work to reduce destructive effects from free radicals, as well as strengthen the immune system and support the body in growth and repair.
Antioxidants are found in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. For example, selenium is a trace mineral that can improve mood. Consuming 100 mcg of selenium per day over five weeks is associated with a reduction in anxiety, depression, and fatigue (Benton, 2002; Katz, 2001).
Sources of food containing the following nutritional compounds have been shown to support mental health:
Carbohydrates are one of the most widely studied nutrients regarding mood and mental health.
It has been found that high carbohydrate meals tend to result in feelings of relaxation and calmness (Corsica & Spring, 2008; Katz, 2001). When a carbohydrate dense meal is consumed, the hormone insulin is released by the body. Insulin aids blood sugar into cells so it can be used by the body for energy. As levels of insulin increase in the body, an amino acid called tryptophan enters the brain. Tryptophan is an amino acid found in protein, which influences the brain’s chemical messengers (neurotransmitters). As tryptophan levels enter the brain, the neurotransmitter serotonin is produced. Serotonin levels enhance mood and have a sedating and calming effect. Studies have associated high serotonin levels with “happier” moods and mild levels with symptoms of depression, fatigue, sleep issues, and poor concentration.
Healthy gluten-free carbohydrates include:
Meal ideas include:
Research has indicated that healthy dietary fats can help to prevent and reduce the risk of many medical conditions such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. Healthy fats containing omega-3 fatty acids (polyunsaturated fats) can aid in health promotion and disease prevention, especially when consumed in appropriate amounts with monounsaturated fat sources (e.g., olive oil). The three omega-3 fatty acids include: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Consuming high omega-3 foods may reduce inflammation, alleviate fatigue, and improve concentration difficulties. Findings have been inconclusive, however, suggesting that more research is needed to generate conclusions regarding its role in depression and mental health. In one study, omega-3 fats did not have a significant improvement on mood in individuals with depression. However, opposing research demonstrated relationships among individuals with low dietary intake of omega-3 fats and higher incidences of depression. Nonetheless, omega-3 fats are important for brain, eye, and nerve health (Richardson, 2003; Mateljan, 2006) .
Excellent food sources of omega-3 fatty acids include:
Other good sources include:
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamin B6 has a role in converting tryptophan to serotonin, which has a mood enhancing and calming effect (see “Carbohydrates” section above).
Sources high in B6 include:
Folic Acid (Folate) and Vitamin B12
Deficiencies in folic acid and B12 have been associated with depression. Folic acid, also referred to as folate, is a B-complex vitamin that has many important roles. Its most notable role is in preventing pregnancy and neural tube defects, but it also aids in proper red blood cell formation and development, cell production, and supporting the nervous system. Due to its relation to the nervous system, a folate deficiency or a diet low in folate is associated with depression, irritability, mental fatigue, and insomnia.
Excellent sources of folate include:
Other good sources include:
Vitamin B12 works closely together with folate in the body. If the body does not have enough B12, it is unable to use folate. In addition, vitamin B12 has roles in the brain and nervous system functioning, bone metabolism, and aiding bodily cells to metabolize protein, carbohydrate, and fat. A deficiency in vitamin B12 may also result in depression as well as weakness, fatigue and poor energy.
Sources of B12 include:
According to the Vitamin D Council (2011), research findings have shown connections between vitamin D levels and symptoms of depression. Vitamin D may have a role in reducing and preventing the risk of depression. In addition, correcting vitamin D deficiencies (as well as the other nutrient deficiencies mentioned in this article) may help alleviate symptoms once the body is in proper balance (Vitamin D Council, 2011; McCann & Abes, 2008).
Sources of vitamin D include:
Calcium not only has a role in bone health, but also assists in the functioning of nerves, blood vessels, and hormones. A deficiency in calcium may cause anxiety, agitation, depression, insomnia, irritability numbness, and muscular pain. However, excessive calcium levels may also result in depression-related symptoms (Young, 2002; Matta, 2012). Therefore, an adequate intake may help establish a proper balance of calcium. Check the RDA for calcium, as there are established requirements depending on age, gender, and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Calcium is available in dairy and non-dairy based foods. Dairy sources include milk, cheese, and yogurt.
Non-dairy sources include:
Magnesium has a role in muscle relaxation, heart and cardiovascular health, and nerve transmission. A deficiency in magnesium may result in anxiety, agitation, irritability, confusion, depression, restlessness, and insomnia (Yu ASL, 2007; Rakel, 2007).
Sources of magnesium include:
A healthy and well-balanced gluten-free diet that incorporates a variety of fruits, vegetables, proteins, and whole grain carbohydrates can prevent and correct nutritional deficiencies, restore health, provide energy, and ultimately, lead you on the path to wellness. Select whole grain items (e.g., brown rice, sorghum) over refined and processed flours (e.g., white rice flour) to maximize the nutritional benefits from whole grain products. Eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables to ensure balance and optimal intake. Be sure to choose foods that fit your lifestyle, tastes, and personal preferences.
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About Christina Gentile, MA, CWC
Christina Gentile, MA, is a clinical psychology student in her 4th year of doctoral training, currently researching natural sources of nutrition to fight anxiety and depression. Christina follows a holistic approach, incorporating nutrition with psychology when applicable. She has a bachelor’s in Nutrition-Dietetics and a master’s in clinical psychology.